I sit in the late afternoon heat and focus on one thread of sweat as it trickles down my neck, between my breasts to sink into the fabric of the pants that ride low on my waist. In the Ohadi camp, servants scurry. The hive is near to exploding. Sand rustles next to me and Raef rumbles a raspy greeting to Rellik without opening his eyes. I pick another thread of sweat to focus on, “If we do this, it must be tonight. Something has happened to make prepare to break camp. It’s too late for them to leave tonight, but they’ll ride when day breaks. After the moon rises, Nessa and I will clear the guards. You get the Seer and her precious brothers from their tents; Lataf and Evals will wait with the horses over the dunes.”
Rellik lifts to his feet, leaving a dimple in the sand, “I’ll spread the word.”
I watch him ease into the camp to find the others and fight the restlessness inside of me. With a sigh, I rise and enter the tent with the hopeless wish to sleep before the long night begins.
In the darkness, I rise and touch Rellik on the shoulder before she and Nessa ghosted from the tent. With the ease of practice, we slide through the inky murk towards the first tents at the edge of the Ohadi camp. The sentries set to watch die silently, leaving two wives and six children behind to mourn their loss in the morning. Nessa and I split up each taking a path around the camp to meet on the other side. I don’t worry about alerting the guards, I know my talents and I know Nessa’s. In less than ten minutes, we meet on the far side of camp. The horse guard lays slumped in death, Lataf’s doing so that Carid and Reyals could catch their horses and the horse of the Seer. Taking the catch ropes from my waist, I ease through the main herd to the Edalb section. My eyes are accustomed to the dark as I move into the smaller herd looking for the mark I made earlier in the day using a small smear of paint between their forelegs. Now, after the day’s heat, the paint has hardened and shows like dull smudges of white in the darkness. I move from horse to horse until I have the nine I want. A stampede would be too loud and killing the rest would startle the herd into noise so we have to settle for taking the best as spare mounts. Nessa and I lift ourselves from the sand to mount two of the chosen horses. Others in hand, we make our way to where the rest of the group waits over the rise of the dunes.
Without dismounting, we slide from the spares to the backs of our own saddled and ready horses. We walk our horse for a mile, then lift them into ground eating trots. The spare horses, no strangers to night rides, pace themselves to the riders. Dawn breaks with the first glorious rays of sun at our backs. Ahead of us the lava hills loom, a twisted shadow on the horizon that already dances with heat waves. We continue at a walk, now riding our spares. Sweat rises on the horse’s hides, and I go back to focusing on sweat slide down my own body. None us speak, there is no need to waste words and moisture into the sand’s leeching heat. Slowly the lava hills rise higher in our sight, becoming more distinguished.
When we reach their edge, we dismount. Nessa leads the way into the labyrinth of up-thrusts and weird formations, her small body testing the strength of the hardened surface. The hard surface can give way to parchment thin rock that breaks and throws the victim to the jagged rocks below, the Sand Belt is a place to be respected. Slowly the lave hills rise, until we look down at the desert we had traveled in the morning’s relative cool. Nessa stops the procession with a raise of her hand and disappears into the black landscape for several minutes, before returning with a small smile. “Water-hole.”
The last in line, I look back at the desert before we move on in the new direction, far way in the shimmering distance a smudge rests among the brightness of sun on sand. I catch up with the others as they enter alcove. On the far side the spring bubble merrily, small tufts of grass struggle in the shade of the alcove walls. We all drink, and then let the horses drink. Water botas filled, we take a moment in the shade. Restless, I wander off to explore our little slice of cool heaven. I find a tunnel in the lava that leads to another alcove. In this one, the sides rise tall, and the only exit is back the way I came. I return to the others as Nessa flits down the canyon walls,
“We are followed. hours and they will be here.”
Rellik strokes a hand down his bay’s nose, “This place is a good spot to rest, we could wait for them.”
Lataf smiles and twirls an earring. Evals nods his agreement. Carid looks up from his spot beside the Seer. “Where do we put the horses?”
I nod my head to the opening in the lava walls. “Through there, grass and another spring. We can unsaddle and let them rest. Once we start this, we finish it; there will be no running, not among the lava. We’ll meet them head on, and see if you three are worth anything in battle.”
Reyals, Lataf, and Rellik rise to push the horses through the opening and unsaddle. In the stillness that follows our preparation a fly buzzes through the air. The little spring gurgles happily, unaware of the blood waiting to be spilled. The hours pass in silence, and then, we hear hoof steps on the lava bed.
I feel a smile spread across my face when the Edalb riders enter the opening to the small sanctuary. The others spread out to my left and right. As it always does for me, the world slows down and everything moves in slow motion. I see Nessa creep along the top of the cliff behind the wary riders. The last rider swings his horse broadside to the opening to watch for any surprises from behind. He does not look up until too late; Nessa looses an arrow into his horse’s throat. The animal goes down with a gargled scream and thrashes upon the ground. There is a split second pause where I can see the Edalb riders hesitate before they charge. The charging animals make it twenty feet before the leaders go down in piles of blood and flailing limbs. The tripwires slice into the horse’s legs, instantly laming them. Some of the riders realized the trap and managed to jump free of the falling horses, others are not so lucky and are pinned beneath the animals they’d been riding.
From a motionless stand, I move. Swords become silver arcs as I slice my way through horse and rider. Out of the corner of her eyes, I see Carid and Rellik do the same. I focus in on the man in front of me. He lunges and I slide away, the smile on my face never wavers, this is what I was born for. He spins and lunges again. I slide under the lunge, slicing through the tendons of his legs with a deft twist of my sword. He hits the ground and turns in time to see my sword slash towards his throat. His body sprawls motionless in the sand that slowly turns red. When there is no one standing I stop, and let my swords drip blood onto the earth. With cool ease, Lataf moves among the pinned riders and ends their lives while Evals does the same for the fallen horses. Nessa and Lopa gather the remaining mounts together. We can sell them when we reach the Grasslands. Ohadi horses are coveted.
Carid walks towards me, disgust in his eyes. “There was no honor in this.”
From behind him the Seer speaks, “Honor is for the dead men and fools. We are neither.”
I eye the odd girl for a moment before I nod my head. “Strip the bodies of anything useful. The vultures’ll be here soon. We need to be gone before that.”
“Hey, the rings are mine, I need some more.” Lataf twirls his ring-studded fingers.
I laugh, “If you find a new tent please gods grab it, that damn gypsy tent is going to shame me to death.”
Reyals and Carid pause from cleaning swords, “Do we bury them?”
Nessa laughs, the bell-like ring of her voice a little deadlier to the ears of the newcomers now that they’ve seen her kill. “No my new brothers, we do not bury them. The buzzards need to eat, as do the sand cats and all the other beasts of the wild.” Behind her Raef tears a chunk of hide from a dead horse.
Within the hour, we fade into the twisted rocks, leaving the sanctuary silent but for the gurgling stream. Once I see the Seer look back at the dark spots in the sky. The buzzards had already smelled the blood. I smile to myself as we ride, in the Sand Belt death is a fleeting thing, one-hour bodies, the next bones, the next nothing but shifting sand. Gods I love this place as much as I hate it.